by Ozzie Nogg
In August of 1937, Ludwig Rosenberg, his wife, Ilse Speier Rosenberg and their eighteen-month old daughter, Hanna, left Sonneberg in Nazi Germany for Liverpool, England, where they were booked on the Cunard White Star Samaria bound for the United States. Ilse’s parents and younger sister Eva had already fled Germany to join extended family in Lincoln, Nebraska. Ludwig’s brother, sister-in-law, and young nephew had previously escaped to Palestine. Ludwig’s mother and father, along with many of his uncles, aunts and cousins, were still trying to secure exit papers. On July 15, 1937, only weeks before Ludwig, Ilse and Hanna sailed for America, Buchenwald concentration camp opened in an idyllic wooded area 50 miles southwest of Leipzig.
On August 20, 1937, while the Rosenbergs located their cabin on the Samaria, stevedores loaded the family’s belongings into the ship’s hold. Large pieces of furniture and rugs; wooden crates filled with kitchen utensils, tools, writing paper, carbon paper, yarns, threads, sewing kits, silver, crystal, porcelain and linens; valises and trunks packed with clothes. One particular trunk, made of leather and wood, bore a sticker from the Lugano Park Hotel and a large black stencil that read LR 1924. The trunk was tagged, “Not wanted on voyage. To be landed at New York.” The Rosenbergs also took with them many German schranks — large wardrobes and cupboards — even though Ludwig’s cousins in Lincoln had told him to leave those behind because American homes had built-in closets.
Albert Speier, one of the American cousins, was instrumental in securing the safety of the Speier-Rosenberg families. In 1935, Albert and his wife Henrietta visited Switzerland where they arranged to meet with Ilse Rosenberg’s parents, Alfred and Käte Speier. German Jews were already being stripped of their citizen rights, and Albert urged his cousins to flee. Albert signed the documents the family needed before they could enter the United States, and offered Alfred a job in his Lincoln dry cleaning business. Before the Speiers could depart Germany, the Nazi government seized the family’s liquid assets as a tax for the privilege of leaving the country. Realizing they’d have no ready cash to spend on personal items when they arrived in the United States, a farsighted Alfred made sure that he, his wife and Eva, packed enough clothes to last five years. After the family settled in Lincoln, they began the process of rescuing their older daughter Ilse, her husband, Ludwig, and little Hanna from Germany. Two years later, the Rosenbergs boarded the Samaria.
Like his father-in-law, Alfred Speier — and all other Jews lucky enough to escape Germany — Ludwig was unable to take money out of the country. He could, however, buy German scrip to use on shipboard. Each evening Ludwig called the waiter to his table, handed him the equivalent of $100 in scrip, asked the waiter to bring him a single cigar and — since the Samaria belonged to the English Cunard Lines — to bring back the change in pounds sterling. Ludwig knew that once in the States, he could exchange the pounds for American dollars.
Six days after leaving Liverpool, the Samaria arrived in New York. Dock workers off-loaded the Rosenberg’s furniture and rugs, the wooden crates, wardrobes and cupboards along with the trunk bearing a sticker from the Lugano Park Hotel and a large black stencil that read LR 1924. All these possessions were transported directly to Lincoln. U.S. immigration officials, sent from Omaha to inspect the Rosenberg’s goods, cleared them to be kept in the United States by the family. The only item confiscated was a short-wave radio that the officials feared could be used for espionage.
Before he left Sonneberg in 1937, Ludwig Rosenberg was a co-owner of the Speyer Department Store with his parents, Bernhard ‘Benno’ Rosenberg and Hedwig Speyer Rosenberg, and his Uncle Julius Speyer. When Ludwig arrived in Lincoln, he went to work as a stock boy at Gold’s Department Store which was owned by Nathan Gold, a brother of Henrietta Gold Speier, Albert Speier’s wife. Eventually, Ludwig worked his way up the ladder and became a buyer in charge of one of the men’s clothing departments. Ludwig’s continued efforts to rescue his parents and other family from Germany were ultimately unsuccessful. Bernhard and Hedwig Rosenberg were murdered at Treblinka in September, 1942. Ludwig’s Uncle Julius was murdered later that fall in Theresienstadt.
Ludwig Rosenberg died in Lincoln in 1961, two weeks short of age fifty-three. Today, his leather and wood trunk is part of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society archives. It was donated to the NJHS in 1996 by Ludwig’s daughter, Hanna Rosenberg Gradwohl and her husband, David, of Ames, Iowa. The couple met under intertwined branches of their family tree. “Shortly after Ludwig, Ilse, and Hanna arrived in Lincoln,” David explained, “they — along with Ilse’s parents, Alfred and Käte, and her sister, Eva — were invited to the home of Albert Speier and his wife, Henrietta Gold Speier. My parents, Elaine Mayer Gradwohl and Bernard S. Gradwohl, and I were also invited, since Albert Speier’s wife, Henrietta, was my mother’s first cousin. So Hanna and I met when she was not yet two years old and I was not yet four. Ludwig took photos of the us on that occasion. I don’t think it was love at first sight, but Hanna and I did marry in 1957, twenty years after meeting each other at the home of her grandfather’s first cousin and my mother’s first cousin.”
David Gradwohl, Anthropology Emeritus Professor at Iowa State University, serves as the designated family historian. “The Speiers and Rosenbergs saved lots of things,” David said. “Photographs, Ludwig’s passport, ephemera, memorabilia, letters. Lots of letters. Hanna and I have some 1500 – 2000 letters written from Germany to Lincoln, and some from Lincoln to Germany, that document how hard everyone tried to get Ludwig’s parents and uncle Julius out of Nazi Germany. The letters are being translated, and we hope to write a book about this saga.” Meanwhile, David and Hanna are pleased to share stories about the personal ‘cargo’ the Rosenbergs brought to America.
“One large steamer trunk that came on the Samaria with the family had hanging space and drawers,” David said. “In the Rosenberg’s house in Lincoln the trunk was used to store clothing,
linens, towels and other household items. Later, the trunk served as a funky closet in our son’s bedroom. He loved it.” Three Oriental rugs from the Rosenbergs’ Sonneberg home now grace the Gradwohls’ Ames living room, and the couple also uses the schranks that Ludwig had been advised to leave behind. According to David, the wardrobes make wonderful extra cupboard space. Other Rosenberg belongings have been re-purposed, as well. “Ludwig and Ilse brought one large aluminum suitcase with them which they used for additional storage in Lincoln,” David said. “They gave it to us to take on camping trips, and when our son went off to college, he took the aluminum suitcase with him. He still has it. I’ve not researched the matter, but I don’t think such sturdy aluminum suitcases were being made in the U.S. in the 1930s.”
Hanna Gradwohl recalls that her parents intentionally brought certain items to the United States, planning to sell them and then use the money to buy food and other household necessities. “I remember a beautiful dining room set, probably Bauhaus, that my folks sold in Lincoln. And there were pieces of crystal, silver and porcelain that my mother and grandmother would bring as hostess gifts to luncheons and bridge parties, because they really had no money for flowers or candies.”
Evidence of what the Rosenbergs took with them from Germany, and what they saved, continued to surface. “Fifteen years after my father’s death, my mother still had some of his undershirts that had never been worn,” Hanna said. “They still had their original price tags on them. She was going to give the undershirts to the Salvation Army, but our three children — her grandchildren — begged their ‘Oma’ to let them keep the undershirts to wear as outer garments which was the fashion at the time.” In 1996, when Ilse Rosenberg and Eva Speier prepared to move from Lincoln to Ames to be closer to the Gradwohls, David — while helping the women pack — discovered a cache of unused tea towels. “There were stacks of towels that still had their original sizing,” David said. “We donated some of the towels to museums, and others we put to use. Frankly, they’re much more absorbent than towels you can buy here today.”
When not in the classroom or supervising various archeological digs throughout Iowa, David Gradwohl devoted much of his career to hands-on work in museums. In 1998, his deep connection to Judaism was put to good use in his role of guest curator for an exhibit on Jewish prairie pioneer women in Iowa at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines.
“I was trained as a prehistoric archeologist,” David explained, “but having grown up in Lincoln, Hanna and I both have a love of Nebraska and its history. Although the experiences of Jews in the Midwest have generally been ignored or given short shrift by chroniclers of American Jewish history, we recognize that Jews have made significant commercial, professional, educational, political and cultural contributions to the fabric of this state — all of which the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society continues to preserve through the acquisition of artifacts, archival sources, photographs and oral histories of Jewish pioneers in Nebraska as well as from the communities in which Jews continue to live today. Hanna and I are charter members of the NJHS, and our donation of Ludwig’s trunk and other Rosenberg family memorabilia was our way of adding our voices and declaring that, ‘Yes. There are Jews in Nebraska, and we have been here since the earliest Euro-American settlement period.’”
In the fall of 1993, David and Hanna Gradwohl accompanied Hanna’s mother, Ilse Speier Rosenberg, and aunt, Eva Speier, on a trip to Germany. “In Frankfurt, we visited the Jewish cemetery where there is a cenotaph in memory of Ludwig’s parents, Benno and Hedwig Rosenberg, and his Uncle Julius Speyer. Their remains, of course, were reduced to ashes at Treblinka and Theresienstadt and, I suppose, still swirl around the universe. Perhaps that’s another reason the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society is so dear to us. It’s a tangible resting place for so much of our family history.”
The mission of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society is to preserve the histories of the Jewish families who settled in Nebraska and Eastern Iowa during the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “We are continually documenting the stories of people who raised their families, built their businesses, organized synagogues and participated in the civic development and economic growth of their new homeland,” said Renee Corcoran, NJHS Executive Director. “Our Carl Frohm Archival Center includes paper and oral evidence as well as photographs, historical records and other artifacts that re-create the history of our Jewish community. We do this work in order to offer a lasting heritage for our children and grandchildren. We’re very pleased that Hanna and David Gradwohl gifted us with their precious family treasures, and we encourage others to do the same.”